TRAVEL NEWS: Why is Everyone Going to Bhutan?

- by Jane Margolies, originally printed in the New York Times

Two years ago, Penny George “couldn’t have located Bhutan on a map.” But after hearing friends rave about their trip to the tiny Buddhist kingdom tucked in the Himalayas, Ms. George, president of a foundation that promotes holistic medicine, was hooked.

Paro Festival in Bhutan

Paro Festival in Bhutan

This fall, she and her husband made the long journey from their home in Minneapolis to Bhutan’s sole airport, then spent seven days on a guided tour, trekking into virgin forests, tiptoeing into temples and passing through villages where men and women still go about in traditional dress. “Bhutan has bubbled up in the collective consciousness,” said Ms. George. “I just felt like I had to go.”

Move over, Cambodia. Bhutan is the new must-see destination in southern Asia. With Tibet in the grip of Communist China and Nepal deemed unsafe by the United States State Department, this peaceful nation half the size of Indiana is emerging as a big draw, attracting those in search of a spiritual journey, a hiking adventure – or just a chance to experience a place before the rest of the world gets there. The number of visitors to Bhutan, as small as a few thousand not long ago, increased to 9,000 last year, a third of them Americans. “Among those who have been everywhere, seen everything,” said Rok Klancnik of the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency based in Madrid, “interest in Bhutan is growing.”

But why? How did a place with one main road, and only five months of prime travel weather, catapult to the cutting edge of high-end tourism? And how, indeed, does any destination suddenly appear on the radar screen? Bhutan – a Brigadoon of astonishing beauty – has done what it takes to become a travel hot spot.

Create a mystique. Never gave Bhutan much thought until recently? You’re not alone. Until 1972 outsiders weren’t even allowed into the hermetic kingdom sandwiched between China and India. That year, Bhutan invited foreign dignitaries to the coronation of the present king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and roads, lodges and an airfield were built to accommodate the guests. Once that basic infrastructure was in place, the country began, in 1974, to admit tourists – but only a select few.

Another reason are the colorful festivals, among the most popular is The Paro Tshechu, held every spring, one of the most significant events in Paro Dzongkhag (district). The Tsehchu is considered a major attraction and people travel from neighboring districts to participate in the festivity. Early in the morning on the last day of the celebration the monks display a gigantic thangkha (embroidered painting) , the Guru Throngdel, inside the dzong. Thongdrols are especially impressive examples of Buddhist art and never fail to amaze viewers. They are considered so sacred that simply seeing a Thongdrol is said to cleanse the viewer of sin.

To read more of the article from the NY Times, click here.

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Editor’s note: Original World offers cultural immersion tours to Bhutan, including the upcoming Himalayan Explorer: Paro Festival Tour with Sikkim and Darjeeling, which departs in April, 2014.

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